With the 2012 season and accompanying postseason fully in the history books, NFL teams are now focused on preparing for the upcoming 2013 Draft as well as the impending free agency period. Free agency officially begins on March 12, but there will be plenty of moves and transactions made before then. As always, we'll see teams release established veterans and valuable players in order to save themselves money and gain flexibility under the salary cap. I'll be going division-by-division and analyzing the salary cap situation of each team in the league, highlighting some players for every club that could potentially be axed in order to save some money. We're halfway through the NFC now, having tackled the North and East divisions already this week, and we continue to move forward with the NFC South today.
Current Projected Cap Space - $4.4M
Key Free Agents - William Moore (S), Brent Grimes (CB), Sam Baker (OT), Vance Walker (DT)
The Falcons finally got the monkey off of their backs for the most part during the 2012 postseason, winning their first Playoff game under Mike Smith and Matt Ryan since the duo arrived in 2008. Unfortunately, the new winning streak stopped after just one game and the Falcons were once again watching the Super Bowl from the couch after a loss in the NFC Championship Game. The team is talented and most of their core pieces are coming back (with the possible exception of Tony Gonzalez, who is not listed above because it would seem the only options for him are retirement or a return to Atlanta), so they should once again be among the top competition in the NFC next season. If they decide that they need to go out into free agency and add another key piece though, they're likely going to have to free up some money to do it.
The most notable candidate to be a cap casualty for Atlanta is runningback Michael Turner
, who once was considered one of the top feature backs in the league after signing with the Falcons prior to the 2008 season. The past couple of years have been one of steep decline for Turner however; who will be 31 years-old for this upcoming season, and set to earn a total of $8.9M. Since it would only cost the Falcons a $2.0M penalty to release him, it seems like Turner's days in the ATL are inevitably numbered. Another prime candidate to be cut is corner Dunta Robinson, another former prominent free agent acquisition whom the Falcons signed away from Houston in 2010. He'll earn $9.0M next season if kept on the team, but Atlanta will only have to pay $3.0M of that money if they decide to release him. Those two moves combined would result in a healthy savings of $12.9M in cap space.
Current Projected Cap Space - $6.0M OVER
Key Free Agents - Captain Munnerlyn (CB), Ben Hartsock (TE), Louis Murphy (WR), Derek Anderson (QB)
Carolina has already been at work to reduce their very hefty cap figure for 2013, restructuring contracts for Ryan Kalil and Jonathan Stewart in the past couple of weeks. They're still over by a few million dollars however, and are in a situation where most of their highest-paid players aren't really likely to be going anywhere. Charles Johnson and Jordan Gross are both going to make eight-figures this season, but they are far too good and too valuable to let go. The dead money they would have to pay DeAngelo Williams for cutting him would actually be more than it would be to keep him on the roster, although that doesn't mean that the team couldn't part ways with him past June 1, where the penalty would be spread evenly across the next two seasons.
One move that new General Manager Dave Gettleman could make right now in an effort to undo Marty Hurney's decision to lock together the core of a 2-14 team, would be to release veteran cornerback Chris Gamble
, who will earn just a tick under $11.0M total in 2013. Letting him go would save the Panthers about $8.0M this offseason and get them underneath the cap on it's own. They will likely still need to restructure a few deals, and it wouldn't hurt to cut a guy like Ron Edwards or Geoff Hangartner, which would save the team $2.5M and $1.5M respectively, but it doesn't appear that the Panthers will be able to find a way to be a major player in free agency this year.
New Orleans Saints:
Current Projected Cap Space - $15.6M OVER
Key Free Agents - Jermon Bushrod (OT), Sedrick Ellis (DT), Devery Henderson (WR), Brian de la Puente (C)
I wonder if the Jets and Saints booked seats next to each other on their trip to Cap Hell. At least for the Jets, the cuts to make in order to right the ship were easy to find. Bart Scott, Calvin Pace, and Jason Smith were no-brainer decisions to release and got the Jets under the cap limit for 2013. For New Orleans? The answers aren't so clear. It recently came out that the organization wants to restructure the contracts of both Will Smith
and Jonathan Vilma
, who are each set to earn big bucks in 2013 - $14.5M and $8.7M respectively. Restructuring their deals would only push that money forward though, and it only serves to delay paying them. It seems like it would be wiser to release both players outright, and save a total of $13.8M in the process. Combine that with the fact that neither player may be a good fit for the new 3-4 defense New Orleans will be implementing, and letting them go becomes a much easier pill to swallow.
All of that being said, the Saints are still over the cap even if they do make those two cuts. In all likelihood, they are going to need to get a couple of guys to agree to restructuring their contracts when all is said and done. Preferably though, players who have deals where it won't requiring pushing too much money forward. Jabari Greer and Ben Grubbs likely fit this category. If they were to opt to make further cuts though, both of their starting safeties in Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins could be in danger. Harper wasn't good at much to begin with, and when Gregg Williams left and Steve Spagnuolo's more conservative scheme was installed, it really shined the spotlight on his weaknesses. The team would still have to eat a substantial chunk of his $7.1M cap figure, but would save a million dollars nonetheless, and free themselves of a severely overpaid player in the process. Malcolm Jenkins isn't as bad, but still has never lived up to his billing as a former first-round pick, and the Saints would save $2.5M in letting go of him and his $4.0M cap figure.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
Current Projected Cap Space - $30.7M
Key Free Agents - Michael Bennett (DE), Ronde Barber (S), E.J. Biggers (CB), Dallas Clark (TE)
After being the biggest spenders on the open market in 2012, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in a position to break out the checkbook once again in 2013. Due to some clever restructuring of contracts for their two star free agent acquisitions during their aforementioned 2012 spending spree, Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks, the Buccaneers freed up several millions of dollars with which to spend this year in free agency. One would have to assume that a portion of that will go towards retaining the services of Michael Bennett, one of the most unheralded young stars in the league today, and Ronde Barber as well, provided he wants to continue playing as he was still a very effective starter at safety last season. The best part for Buccaneer fans is that, if the front office was so inclined to do so, they could easily free up plenty more money with further moves.
Due to a PED-related suspension that came during the 2012 season, all of the guaranteed money in the contract of Eric Wright
was voided. Therefore, the Buccaneers could axe the player who was rated by Pro Football Focus as the sixth-worst cornerback in the NFL amongst all qualified CBs as recently as 2011, for absolutely nothing. In the NFL, free money is never a bad thing, and at the tune of $7.75M it seems very likely that Wright will be shown the door sometime soon. Similarly, there is no guaranteed money left in the contract of linebacker Quincy Black, who has been hampered by injuries the past couple of seasons and has failed to be productive on the field when he has been healthy. His $5.75M cap figure makes him severely overpaid, and again, when the money you're getting back is absolutely free, it becomes a hard deal to pass up.